WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Clinton will travel to the heartland today to unveil his long-awaited plan to fix welfare, a vast federal program that started with the best of intentions but that most Americans believe has created huge new social problems.
Mr. Clinton's pledge during his 1992 run for the presidency "to end welfare as we know it" was highly popular.
But figuring out exactly how to do it has taken some of the administration's most talented domestic policy advisers about 18 months. And the likelihood that welfare reform will pass this year seems slim.
Their $9.3 billion solution, to be officially announced by the president today in Kansas City, Mo., includes the following:
* A two-year time limit on cash benefits for single parents 18 and older. If those receiving welfare cannot find a job, they could enroll in either government-paid community service jobs or subsidized private-sector jobs.
Administration officials predicted that 400,000 mothers could be working under this program within six years.
* A requirement that the youngest women on the rolls -- those born after 1971 -- stay in school or enroll in vocational education, job placement or child-care courses.
* Allowing states to cap welfare benefits so that women receiving Aid for Families with Dependent Children payments who have additional children will no longer get an increase in monthly benefits.
* Unleashing the federal law enforcement system on "deadbeat" dads who the White House says owe $34 billion to their children in back child-support payments -- more than the annual cost of AFDC.
Mr. Clinton will propose a national clearinghouse to track child-support cases across state lines.
He also will call for tightening the procedures for determining the paternity of children whose mothers receive AFDC.
Although nearly everyone in politics agrees that the system is broken, almost all of what Mr. Clinton will propose today -- except the stepped-up effort at collecting child support -- is proving controversial.
Conservatives who want to go much further -- some want to end welfare altogether -- spent the day saying that Mr. Clinton has shied away from true reform.
"Overall, his plan would expand entitlements, create new government welfare programs, and pour more money into a failed system that fosters a pernicious dependency," William Kristol, a prominent conservative, wrote in a memo to Republican leaders.
Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, a pioneer in devising alternatives to welfare, criticized the plan as "a total and complete capitulation to the left."
But liberal critics condemned certain provisions of the plan, too, particularly the "family cap," which many decried as heartless.
"It's coercive, it discriminates against low-income women and it punishes children," said Marcy Wilder, legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights League.
Other benefits to be cut
Other liberals complained -- some to Mr. Clinton directly -- about ZTC the administration's decision to finance his proposal by cutting other domestic programs, including restrictions on health and welfare benefits for legal immigrants whose relatives can afford to support them.
Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, speaking to the president via satellite from the U.S. Conference of Mayors convention in Portland, Ore., said theadministration's mechanism for financing welfare reform "hurts a vulnerable segment of our population."
Mr. Clinton responded: "I don't necessarily agree that there are better options available because I've looked with a fine-tooth comb through the federal budget for them. But I'm certainly willing to work with you on alternatives; if you have some alternatives, I'm willing to work with you on it."
Financing the plan is proving to be a political problem, administration officials say, in part because of the public's misconceptions about what welfare reform would mean.
When voters tell pollsters that they want it curbed, they have in mind tax savings, not more costs. Such savings may come eventually, say welfare experts, but not immediately.
"It's much, much more expensive to provide services for poor people to go to work -- child care, transportation, things like that -- than to just pay the grant," said Janet Goss, an official with the American Public Welfare Association.
Further complicating the president's task is that although welfare reform is a big hit with voters, Congress is still trying to digest the White House's sweeping 1,342-page health reform package and almost certainly will not be able to pass anything on welfare this year.
In the past, administration officials have stubbornly refused to acknowledge any conflict between the two initiatives.
In part, this was because, in Mr. Clinton's mind, welfare reform is inextricably linked with health care reform.
The president insists that no matter what the government says it wants to accomplish, welfare reform can occur only when poor Americans no longer have a disincentive to work because taking a job would rob them of the only health insurance they can now afford -- Medicaid.
"I think that this bill, [coupled] with [last year's increase in] the earned income tax credit, plus providing health care coverage to people in low-wage jobs, will dramatically undermine the whole basis of dependency," Mr. Clinton said recently.
"Finally, we go after what is the real source of this problem, which is the inordinate number of out-of-wedlock births in this country," he added. "I think all these things together give us a real chance to end welfare as we know it."